It’s a dusty September morning, and Kiran Devi is finishing her chores at lightning speed.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to keep 5,000 women waiting, especially when it’s a celebration,” she says with a touch of gushing pride and makes her way to the annual general meeting of the women-owned Aaranyak Agri producer company.
Located in Purnea district in Bihar—one of India’s poorest states—the company is made up of small local women small farmers and producers and lies in the most fertile corn regions in eastern India.
But until recently, small farmers did not fully reap the benefits of this productive land.
Local traders and intermediaries dominated the unregulated market. Archaic and unfair trading practices like manual weighing, unscientific quality testing, and irregular payments made it difficult for small farmers to get the best value for their produce.
“The trader would come, put some grains under his teeth and pronounce the quality and pricing. For every quintal of maize [corn], 5-10 kilos additional grains were taken, sometimes through faulty scales and sometimes simply by brazenly asking for it,” says Lal Devi, one member of the company. “We had the choice between getting less or getting nothing.”
Such practices stirred local women farmers into action, and they formed the Aaranyak Agri Producer Company Limited (AAPC) to access markets directly and improve their bargaining power.
The company established a farmer-centric model and received funding and technical assistance through JEEViKA (livelihoods in Hindi), a World Bank program that supports the Government of Bihar and has achieved life-changing results for Bihar’s rural communities.
Joining forces helped lower costs and boost production. Together, the groups saved $120 million and leveraged more than $800 million in bank loans.
Further, digital technologies have been introduced as an innovative way to improve the production, marketing, and sale of small-farmers’ produce.
For example, women farmers receive regular periodic updates on their mobile phones to learn best practices to grow corn as well as weather information to inform farming decisions.
During harvest season, farmers receive daily pricing information from major nearby markets to help them stay abreast of the latest variations in prices.
Further to that, AAPC has pioneered widespread use of digital moisture meters to test the quality of corn, thus bypassing the arbitrary quality testing performed by local traders and providing a fair incentive to farmers.
Digital weighing machines are now standard practice in the company’s procurement operations.
Online commodity trading also helped the company in leveraging better prices while ensuring farmers cash flows through warehouse receipt, which is credit for farmers produces stored warehouses.
Within a week of sale, farmers receive cashless payments that are directly deposited on their bank accounts.
These innovations have been instrumental in driving dramatic change in the lives of corn farmers by giving them greater control over production and marketing decisions.
Echoing the same, Balamrugan D, JEEViKA’s Chief Executive Officer, notes that “In an imperfect market system, the availability of the right information can really balance the scales for small farmers.” Adding that “With a community-oriented business entity like a producer organization, the producers then have a choice to act on that information.”
The farmers now realize 15-20 percent higher returns by selling to AAPC, which then shares the profits with them.
From a humble beginning of 1000 MT of maize in 2014, the company scaled up to trading 13,000 MT in 2017. The number of participating farmers grew from just 300 to 5,000. The annual business turnover has risen to USD 2 million within three years.
The recent decline in commodity prices has prompted the company to enter the more profitable poultry business by converting corn into poultry feed.
In such a dynamic market context,
JEEViKA’s inclusive approach of empowering and connecting women farmers with formal agri-markets through digital technology is now being replicated across India and emulated across the globe from Afghanistan to Nigeria.
As she climbs onto the driver seat of her new tractor, Kiran Devi expresses optimism for the future.
“The journey hasn’t always been smooth,” she says. “We are competing with traders way more experienced than us. It will take time, but slowly and surely, we will get there.”
And for millions of other farmers, this goal is well worth the journey.